Church of God Theological College in Stara Zagora

April 10, 2008 by  
Filed under News

The recent developments within the Bulgarian Church of God have resulted in a reassessment of the role of the Church of God Theological College in Stara Zagora beyond its educational scope as a faculty department of the Bulgarian Evangelical Theological Institute (BETI). This realization has become even more perplexed with the ongoing accreditation process of the Evangelical Institute with the Bulgarian Ministry of Education, as it remains unclear if the school in Stara Zagora will be included in the final registration as a theological institution of the Bulgarian Church of God or if it will be forced to follow an alternative registration. This lack of transparency leaves the Bulgarian Church of God in jeopardy of its educational representation within the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance and the Bulgarian Ministry of Education.

Meanwhile, it has been generally noted by other theological institutions in Bulgaria that the number of Bible students has gradually decreased in the past years. This process has been dictated by a number of internal and external factors, as the main one among them is that some two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the evangelical denominations in Bulgaria are unable to implement an adequate process of professional placement within their structures for graduates with religious education. The Assemblies of God in Bulgaria realized this trend and moved their training center from the Danube river town of Russe to the capital Sofia early in their educational endeavor. The Church of God College in Stara Zagora is yet to initiate such action, although it is becoming clearer that this move is simply inevitable. The timing for repositioning also remains under question.

It is unfortunate to notice that the school, as it operates today, is neither a leading theological center nor a provision of ministers for the denomination with which it is affiliated. This status raises the valid question of why, after a decade of operation through a substantial investment on the part of the denomination, the Church of God Theological College in Stara Zagora was unable to become a theological center. Not merely a school or educational institution, but a place where theology is envisioned, born and practiced. The reasons for this inability can be found in three major factors: location, people and communication.

The location of the Church of God Theological College in the Bulgarian town of Stara Zagora has proven to be insufficient for the global mission of the school. However, the location of the school on the territory of Bulgaria still remains one of its strongest characteristics. In the early part of its history, the Church of God Theological College was the only operational Church of God affiliated educational institution in the former Communist Block, including the vast territory of Russia. It was placed in the superb geographical location of the Balkan Peninsula with open access to three world continents, three world religions and over one hundred ethnic groups. It was the only Church of God School operating in an Eastern Orthodox country, thus monopolizing the opportunity to research the theological relationship between Eastern mysticism and the Pentecostal experience. And finally, based on the gateway between Europe and the Middle East, the school had an opportunity to effectively engage in the on-going international dialogue between Christianity and Islam. But for a decade of fully sponsored denominational existence, the college has not offered, within the perimeter of its educational strategy, any major research conferences, international round tables, global seminars, public discussions, publication of research papers or books to involve the international scholastic community within the theological trends offered by its unique context of ministry.

Besides its location, the people of the school have also played a major role within its development. Since the early strategy to provide scholarship for students was difficult to maintain, the interest toward the college decreased, as many students preferred the more convenient and prominent location of other schools within the Evangelical Institute operating in the capital Sofia. A similar trend took place among the faculty members, as many relocated only a few years after the school began operating. This was only natural as the initial faculty selection ignored a number of leading Bulgarian theologians with Pentecostal background and degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton Columbia, Regent, Fuller, Dallas and Duke who had a clearly expressed interest in Bulgarian religious education. Naturally, the theologians participating in the educational process of the Stara Zagora school were never able to embrace the school as their alma-matter of theological thought and their context of ministry.

This lack of communication between identity and practice remained a constant struggle for the school not only in the context of its location and people, but in its realization as a ministry training school for the Bulgarian Church of God. The denomination was press to accommodate the strife toward educational excellence on part of the college, on one hand and the plan for a ministry training center on part of the Church of God, on the other. Unfortunately, these two visions, as common as they may be portrayed, never reached a point of merge thus dictating the eventual, if not immediate, separation of the school from the mainline movement. In this context the Bulgarian Church of God was both unprepared and unable to embrace the school as its own. Regardless of its support before government authorities and representation with board of directors of BETI the denomination fell short to fully embrace the college in Stara Zagora and to communicate this relationship clearly to members and ministers seeking higher education. In this context, it can be understood why majority of the school graduates never return to minister in their home churches after completing the educational program at the Church of God Theological College in Stara Zagora.

Today, the separation of church and school remains a leading source of tensions, while the Church of God Theological College in Stara Zagora is in the process of receiving its official accreditation with the Bulgaria’s Ministry of Education as a Department of BETI. The unresolved tensions within the denominations contribute further to the dilemma leaving members, ministries as well as the Bulgarian Ministry of Education with one open question: Will the Theological College in Stara Zagora continue to be the ministry training center for the Bulgarian Church of God when it is granted official government accreditation.